Garden symbolism

26 Aug

Thinking about garden style led me to do a little bit of research into the symbolism of gardens. The thing that sparked this off was reading a catalogue from a 1972 art show in London entitled French Symbolist Painters. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only show of its kind to have been assembled in Britain, at least in living memory, so I was more than pleased to happen upon the catalogue in a Keswick bookshop a couple of weeks ago. In the introduction, Philippe Jullian writes that

The movement resembled a dense forest; its branches sought to hide the factories and the railways, its pungent fruits held the key to ‘anywhere out of the world’, and its luxuriant blossoms inspired Art Nouveau. The roots of the trees thrust themselves deep into the subsoil of Celtic and Norse legends, while the saplings, taken from exotic species of trees issuing from Florence, Byzantium and even India, produced poisonous blossoms . . . we are rediscovering these strange species of trees and re-erecting the moss-covered statues, long grown monstrous in appearance. This forest had been planted with trees from the forest of Broceliande and with flowers from the garden of Klingsor.

I had to look those references up. Broceliande is a mythical forest of Arthurian legend, said to have existed in northern France. Klingsor’s garden is in Parsifal by Wagner, stage directions being “the magic garden rises and fills the whole stage. Tropical vegetation, luxuriant display of flowers.” The garden is populated by seductive yet innocent “flower maidens” (bit of patriarchy for you there).

This is a garden of the mind, but what happens if I switch it around, switch the imagined tropical plants for real ones and cultural objects for mental images? After all, a symbol is only a suggestion of something more beyond a word, an object, a plant. I don’t see why symbols can’t issue from a garden too. As it turns out, they can and they do, obviously; just think of the garden of Eden, but remember, there was more to Eden than meets the eye.

For once, there was an unknown land, full of strange flowers and subtle perfumes; a land of which it is joy of all joys to dream; a land where all things are perfect and poisonous.

(From the film Velvet Goldmine)

Perfect and poisonous. Gardens can get away with contradictions like that. It’s what they are about: trouble. There would be no gardens in utopia, that much I know. The essential thing about gardens, and if you know me a little then you won’t be surprised to see me writing this, is that each one is a fantasy sprung free from reality. They always say more than they intend to and lead off to, well, to something that isn’t a garden, be it functional reality or dysfunctional fantasy. Eden had its forbidden fruit. Most gardens have very visible perimeters, separating them off from the business of modern life. That’s what makes them so unlimited in the imagination: their limits. “You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist. The hacienda must be built.” (Ivan Chtcheglov) The Hacienda has stood to describe a real garden and a utopian vision, not to mention a nightclub, which is kind of half way between the two, if you ask me.

Apparently Jung and Freud thought of gardens as symbols of purity, chastity and femininity. Walled gardens especially have a long, long history of association with the Virgin Mary, so I read, with the modesty of their carefully tended paths and planting. A favourite play on this is the garden in Zola’s La Faut de l’Abbé Mouret; unlike the reader, who knows what’s going to happen, the hero knows nothing of his sin until he looks through a gap in the garden wall.

On the other hand, forests are said to symbolise dark forces of nature, somewhere boundless, somewhere to get lost. I suppose my garden sits somewhere between the two, garden and forest. I know it’s fake, but it’s also made from nature, albeit with a lot of help through the winter. So long as it contains life, and all of life, including the dark and the light, i’m not too bothered what the symbolism is. But it’s there. It lives along with the plants. It’s for others to decode and decide what’s going on, i’m only the worker.

nor till the poets among us can be 

‘literalists of 

the imagination’–above 

insolence and triviality and can present 

for inspection, ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’, shall 

we have 


(from ‘Poetry’ by Marianne Moore)

You can have it both ways, real and ideal, natural and unnatural. In fact, you have to! And that’s me done on the subject, until next time.


One Response to “Garden symbolism”

  1. trilliam August 27, 2014 at 12:02 am #

    Great post! While it made me think, it also echoed my thoughts re. gardens and gardening. I’m in the beginning stages of building a new garden in a very dry area. Ideas like the ones you just set forth are really helpful in focusing my thoughts as I plan it out and begin, in a rather haphazard manner, to build it!

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